Ignorance, Innocent and Otherwise: A conversation with Charles W. Mills

White house on hill

Artwork by Joanna Borkowska

This conversation is part of a series of essays and interviews on the life and philosophy of Charles W. Mills curated and edited by Darren Chetty and Adam Ferner. You can read the full series of essays and interviews in the latest issue of The Philosopher.

Adam Ferner (AF): When we talk about “ignorance” in our daily lives, we often mean nothing more than a lack of knowledge. How might a philosopher refine this?

Charles W. Mills (CWM): “Ignorance” as a subject would be covered by epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions of knowledge. For example, what is the difference between knowledge and mere belief? What are the sources of our knowledge? Which sources are more reliable than others? Is it better to approach these issues from an individualistic perspective (considering knowers in abstraction and isolation) or from a social perspective (considering knowers as members of particular social groups in particular societies at particular time periods)?

Historically, following Descartes’ pioneering work, modern mainstream Western epistemology took it for granted that individualistic epistemology was obviously the superior approach. But in recent decades, we have witnessed the advent and development of social epistemology, which emphasizes how dependent we are on others from birth onwards for most of what we know. Social epistemology locates the knower in his or her social context.

So, an epistemologist would want to analyse “ignorance” to bring out different possible senses and different possible sources, including social ones. Is it ignorance in the sense of knowing nothing about X and having no beliefs one way or another about X, because no one in the human community of knowers does? (For example, truths about distant planets that Earth’s astronomers haven’t even discovered yet.) Or is it ignorance about a specialized field, Xology, that most of us, as laypersons untrained in the area, are unacquainted with (say, advanced quantum mechanics), but which some experts do know about? Or is it ignorance as having a detailed set of false beliefs about the population of X’s (e.g., negative prejudicial ones) because of what we have been taught about them? You can see how these are all going to be crucially different.

AF: Why are we so ignorant about ignorance?

CWM: I would say the answer varies depending on the kind of ignorance involved. In some cases, the ignorance is, so to speak, innocent, in that it involves things beyond our individual range of cognizance or expertise, or our community’s, or even the human race’s. The obstacles to knowledge here, for example, could be simply technical. Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence under George W. Bush, is not – to say the least! – a man I routinely quote. But he does have that famous and valuable summary discussion contrasting known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, which brought the distinctions into everyday usage. According to the all-knowing (!) Wikipedia, these demarcations had actually been drawn before, but were familiar only in more limited circles.

We don’t know not because we can’t know but because we don’t want to know.

However, Wikipedia also cites Slavoj Žižek as putting forward a fourth category, the unknown known, which covers things we do know at some level but do not want to acknowledge. So here the ignorance is less innocent: knowledge is already present, or is at least readily available through the appropriate research, but is being actively suppressed or discouraged. For some reason, whether on the individual or social level – as a threat to our personal peace of mind or to the maintenance of the social order – such knowledge is dangerous. In these cases, ignorance is, in a sense, being actively produced through our actions and inactions. The obstacles are not technical but motivational, or, if structural, the product of structures that are themselves morally and politically problematic. We don’t know not because we can’t know but because we don’t want to know. There’s the classic line: “What did he know and when did he know it?” But you could imagine an appropriate variant for groups involved in wrongdoing, whether directly or by their complicity: “What did they not know and when, how, and why did they not know it?”

AF: You’re particularly interested in the concept of “white ignorance”. What is that exactly?

CWM: White ignorance could be thought of as that particular subset of varieties of ignorance that is causally tied to white racial domination, and contributes to reproducing it. So, it would fall into the category just discussed of non-innocent ignorance. Obviously there are many such sub-varieties, since there are many kinds of social domination (and all interacting with one another, which makes the whole thing all the more complicated). But white ignorance is in particular need of clarification, I would claim, because race in the form of white domination has played a crucial role in shaping the modern world while being historically neglected in philosophical research. Yet one of the fascinating things about race from a philosophical point of view is that it has implications for so many branches of the field: metaphysics (does race exist, and if so how?), ethics and political philosophy (what are the rights and wrongs of racial actions and racial public policy?), and epistemology (how does race influence our attempts to cognize reality?). My contention is that white ignorance is under-studied despite being differentially significant in influencing social cognition in modernity, and it should be a priority for us to remedy this state of affairs.

I should make clear, of course, that I don’t mean “race” in the old-fashioned racist sense (that’s why the metaphysics is relevant), but “race” as a social construct. You’re racially categorized in a certain way, and this ascribed identity – in a racist society – then has a huge impact on your life. Think of the difference between being categorized as Jewish or Aryan in Nazi Germany, for example, or as white or black in apartheid South Africa. So, it’s not a matter of claiming (as traditional biological racism would have claimed) that, say, white brains and black brains are intrinsically different, and that this determines their owners’ ability to perceive and understand things. Rather, it’s a matter of asking how people’s socialization, education, inherited culture, location in the social order, access to or exclusion from opportunities, and resulting life chances and life-worlds are affected by racialized social structures. And the point is that this racial dividing-line will impact social cognition also.

AF: How does white ignorance connect with the notions of white denial and white complicity?

CWM: Let’s begin with an uncontroversial case. Because for the last seventy years since the end of World War II we’ve been educated through thousands of scholarly studies, documentaries, novels, movies, etc. about the horrors of the Third Reich and the record of the Nazis as paradigms of evil, most people will have no difficulty in seeing how race shaped society there. The “good German” who somehow managed to know nothing about what was happening to the Jews will be a completely familiar and contemptible figure. British and American nationals in particular will be able to pride themselves on their countries’ part in the historic defeat of fascism, and to give such moral evaders the scorn they deserve.

But the representation of Nazism as an unprecedented outlier in the evolution of Western civilization is fundamentally misleading, and the self-righteous Anglo-American characterization of Nazi policies as a radical break with Western legality is unjustified. James Q. Whitman’s recent Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law demonstrates through his research in the archives that when Nazi lawyers were looking for a jurisprudential model for the anti-Semitic 1934 Nuremberg Laws, their poster state (as the leading racial state on the planet) was the United States. The runner-up, your British readers will be interested to know, was the British Empire.

The representation of Nazism as an unprecedented outlier in the evolution of Western civilization is fundamentally misleading.

So, we need to recognize that a two-tiered, racially dichotomized citizenship (indeed a dichotomized personhood) has been central to modernity, and that the “Anglosphere” (the British and American Empires) was the central player in laying its foundations. (See Srdjan Vucetic’s highly educational The Anglosphere: A Genealogy of a Racialized Identity in International Relations.) And that means that we have to understand the functioning of white ignorance both at the first-order level, in the original denials of factual and moral reality necessary for the creation and maintenance of such racist socio-political systems, and at the second-order level, in the recent erasure of this history of denial. (Whitman expresses puzzlement in his opening pages, for example, that no American scholar had made this connection before, despite the ready availability of the crucial archival materials.)

If the “good German” is a familiar and facile cognitive reference-point for our scorn, we need to face the fact that the “good Englishman” and the “good American” are similarly culpable in their having managed to know nothing over hundreds of years about what was happening to Native Americans, Native Australians, colonized Asians and Africans, captured African slaves – all the victims of the Anglosphere, whether in the colonial possessions or the white settler states. White ignorance of one kind made this history possible while white ignorance of another kind is blocking its acknowledgment today, thereby helping to perpetuate its legacy.

Picture 1901 "Interior en la calle Strand"

AF: There are obviously obstacles to white people becoming aware of their privilege. Can philosophers help us find strategies for overcoming these obstacles?

CWM: It’s a task that will require collaborative work across many disciplines, but yes, I would like to think that philosophy has a distinctive contribution to make. One of the positive developments of recent decades has been an influx of white women into the profession, along with a trickle of people of colour. As traditionally excluded populations, they both have a natural interest in shaking up the discipline and raising questions largely ignored historically by the overwhelmingly white-male majority demographic. (So this, you will appreciate, is yet another variety of white ignorance, that within the profession itself, thereby giving rise to the obvious injunction “Philosopher, heal thyself!”) Social epistemology as a new movement did not originally make social oppression central, but this has begun to change. And here I must mention the important work of my colleague Miranda Fricker (a British national, by the way), whose seminal (ovular?) book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing has had a huge impact on the field, and helped to open the door to making these issues respectable within the analytic mainstream of the profession.

But apart from social epistemologists, ethicists and political philosophers clearly also have a vital role to play. Insofar as white ignorance helps to reproduce patterns of racial exploitation and consequent illicit white advantage, it is not merely cognitively but morally problematic. So, deep questions of social justice and what would be necessary to realize a just society are also involved. John Rawls’ 1971 A Theory of Justice revived Anglo-American political philosophy, which was widely regarded at the time as moribund, and made social justice rather than political obligation its central theme. But unfortunately his apparatus was structured and oriented by the goal of determining justice in a perfectly just society, and neither he nor his followers ever made the transition to theorizing the correction of historical injustices, including racial injustices. The result has been a vast secondary literature in which race is almost completely marginalized, despite (or should that be “because of”?) – as just emphasized – the establishment of the Anglo-American Empires precisely on the foundation of racial injustice.

Insofar as white ignorance helps to reproduce patterns of racial exploitation and consequent illicit white advantage, it is not merely cognitively but morally problematic.

Happily, more and more people, especially from the younger generation of philosophers, are beginning to see how deeply problematic such a framing is. (Readers will be unsurprised to learn that I would indeed claim that mainstream Rawlsianism is itself a manifestation of white ignorance). So, my hope is that things are beginning to change, and that philosophy courses informed by this new revisionist sensibility can help to raise the consciousness of young people, especially privileged whites in the Global North, and in this way contribute to a global movement for racial justice. If philosophy’s classic mission in the Western tradition has been to enable us to understand the world and help to make it a better place, then overcoming white ignorance should certainly be on the top of the philosophical agenda.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").

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